When considering the 'Roaring Twenties' in the U.S., prohibition is perhaps the most relevant and interesting facet of that period of the nation's history. Referred to by some as 'The Noble Experiment,' alcohol prohibition in the U.S. was pushed forward by temperance leagues around the nation and eventually codified by the federal government in the form of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment was proposed by the U.S. Senate on December 18, 1917. After having been approved by 36 states, the 18th Amendment was officially ratified on January 16, 1919 after being vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson and subsequently went into effect on January 16, 1920.
Far from having the desired effect, however, prohibition did little or nothing to curb drinking in the country and, instead, spawned a rich, prosperous and violent criminal underworld that consisted of gangster who were all too happy to sell alcohol illicitly and at astronomical prices. It was during this era that some of the most infamous criminals in the history of the country first became prosperous and notorious.
Until about 1920, the mafia and other criminal groups had engaged primarily in gambling, prostitution and theft. After the 18th Amendment went into effect, however, it became increasingly profitable to smuggle liquor into the country from Canada and overseas, or to produce it in homemade 'stills.' The bootlegging, as the illegal production and distribution of alcohol came to be known, was made more profitable by watering down alcohol or substituting a portion of properly-manufactured alcohol with other alcoholic liquids.
In the largest cities in the U.S., 'Speakeasies' came into being throughout the nation, leading to the enduring image of the 'roaring twenties' in our minds. At the same time, notorious gangsters like Al Capone and his sworn enemy Bugs Moran made millions of dollars by fulfilling the nation's desire for alcohol. It was these ongoing wars between gangsters during the 1920s that to this day defines the gangster era in the U.S. and that still are the subject of films made in the modern-day. Capone himself controlled roughly 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and was the king of the bootlegging business from Florida to Canada. To stake his claim and maintain control of this illicit empire, Capone and his ilk engaged in bribery, murder, torture and many other forms of illegal and violent behavior that was worse than the effects of alcohol had ever been on the nation.
As the Great Depression began, and people tended to turn toward drink as a way of metaphorically 'drowning their sorrows,' prohibition, previously lauded by most Americans, came under increasing scrutiny. When the St. Valentine's Day Massacre occurred in 1929, it was the final straw in the acceptance of prohibition. With the massacre the direct result of fighting between gangsters over the illegal liquor business, prohibition was on its last legs.
At long last, the 18th Amendment was overturned when President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a new amendment - the 21st - on March 22, 1933. The new Cullen-Harrison Act allowed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, but to this day, it is illegal to manufacture distilled spirits without overcoming a wide variety of federal licensing requirements. It is the last remaining vestige of a well-meaning law that wrought havoc on the country in numerous ways, contrary to the intentions of its proponents.